The rise and fall of a Denver sandwich empire
BY PEYTON GARCIA | @CITYCASTDENVER
When’s the last time you experienced an insatiable craving for a toasted sub from Quiznos? For me it was about 15 years ago when my sister was working her first job at a Quiznos outpost in a seedier part of Thornton. These days I couldn’t even tell you where to find a single Quiznos. I mean, I know they’re still around, lurking on empty street corners, trying to resist becoming one of the many plain, tan, brick buildings that make up the edges of Denver’s peripherals where businesses go to fade away.
A little harsh? Maybe. And why am I bringing up Metro Denver’s most inferior sub shop anyway, you ask? Well, I was inspired by a fascinating Tweet thread that a) reminded me that Quiznos wasn’t always so inferior and b) sent me down a research rabbit hole to unpack the oft-forgot demise of a serious toasted sub empire that started right here in Denver and barely exists today.
In the beginning…
The first ever Quiznos sandwich shop opened in Denver’s Cap Hill neighborhood on the corner of 13th and Grant streets in 1981 by Jimmy Lambatos and Todd Disner. (Incidentally, the original location only recently closed in 2020.) Quiznos’ then-unheard-of technique of using a conveyor belt toaster to crisp the bread and melt cheese on its sandwiches made it a pioneer in the world of toasty subs.
Just 10 years later, Lambatos and Disner had franchised the concept into 18 locations. That’s when the two decided to cash out, selling the entire company to local Quiznos franchisee Rick Schaden, who used the brand’s toasty, gooey, delicious popularity to more than double the number of stores to 40 in just two years. (He would later go on to open another popular local chain, Smashburger.) In 1994, Schaden took the company public, raising more than $4 million in IPO. By 2003 there were some 2,000 Quiznos stores across the country, and at its peak in 2007, more than 5,000.
Flying too close to the sun…
Like Icarus and his damned wax wings, it seems Schaden got cocky. He’d reportedly established a business model that was earning him kickbacks and making profits on franchise fees (though he denies this). Franchise owners claimed they were being pressured into offering low prices on subs while paying above market prices for ingredients and paper goods. The owners were “captive customers,” as one reporter put it. Around 2006, hundreds of Quiznos franchisees joined forces to sue Quiznos for its practice of overselling the markets and making it nearly impossible to make money.
Fall from grace…
Quiznos ended up settling multiple lawsuits from disgruntled franchisees that totaled a $206 million payout to plaintiffs. (But not before one franchise owner tragically died by suicide in a Quiznos bathroom.) By 2012 more than 2,000 locations had closed, due not only to an unsustainable and potentially corrupt business model, but also the arrival of Subway and it’s toasty sub competition (not to mention the fallout from the Great Recession). In 2014, Quiznos filed for bankruptcy, reporting roughly $875 million in debt. As my Twitter source so deftly puts it:
In 2018, High Bluff Capital Partners purchased Quiznos, and despite the company’s attempts to make amends, the business has only steadily declined to the meager 200ish stores that are still around today. According to my quick scan of Google Maps, Metro Denver is home to only 10.
And that, my friends, is an abridged telling (believe it or not) of the fascinating, cautionary tale of Quiznos’ great demise. Despite the scandal and drama of it all, I think it was only a matter of time before Quiznos lost its glow — I mean, we now have new local favorites like Snarf’s and Cheba Hut perfecting the art of toasting sandwiches in all new ways. Perhaps Quiznos just ran its course. But personally, I always was more of a Subway gal.
Want more? Read the thread that inspired this deep dive here, courtesy of @franchisewolf on Twitter — an account dedicated to examining franchises and the entrepreneurs behind them — if only to watch this uber creepy Quiznos “Spongmonkeys” ad from the 2003 Super Bowl.
TODAY ON THE POD ⛺
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Tackling the Housing Crisis One Heated Ice Fishing Tent at a Time
Since the summer of 2020, the mayor’s office and Colorado Village Collaborative have worked together to operate the Safe Outdoor Space program, providing warmth, shelter, food, restrooms, trash service, and more to dozens of unhoused Denverites. But the work has included convincing many Denver residents who want to keep sanctioned campsites out of their neighborhoods that these are, in fact, a good thing.
Today on the show, Host Bree Davies talks with Cuica Montoya, SOS Program Director for the Colorado Village Collaborative, and Ian Stitt, an SOS Site Manager liaison for the St. Francis Center. They discuss how these spaces create community for our unhoused neighbors, how the SOS sites convinced the haters, and how they attracted another $3.9 million in city funding this year.
OTHER ODDS AND ENDS
✏️ Making up for lost academic progress: Denver Public Schools is using federal and state COVID relief funds to provide “high-dose” tutoring to DPS students in math and literacy. The contracts with the tutoring companies will be based on student success rates. [Chalkbeat]
🦠 The light at the end of the tunnel is finally beginning to outshine COVID. On Friday, one day before the two-year anniversary of COVID’s official arrival in Colorado, the number of reported cases in the state was only 52 — that’s the lowest that number has been since the state started tracking the data. [CPR]
⁉️ A box of human heads was stolen from a freight truck in Denver last week, police report. The heads were apparently intended for medical research before being stolen (for god knows what creepy reason). Anyone with information on the incident is being asked to call Metro Denver Crime Stoppers. [Denver Post]
🏔️ Renaming Mount Evans: Tomorrow, you can share your input on what the new name for Colorado’s tallest 14er should be. Its current namesake is former Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans, who was in office for one of the most shameful moments in state history, the Sand Creek Massacre. [9News]
⚖️ Colorado prepares to defend abortion rights: On Wednesday, state lawmakers will host their first hearing on a bill that would protect the right to abortion in Colorado should the US Supreme Court reverse its ruling on Roe v. Wade. [CPR]